For many attorneys who are mid-career, work demands increasingly must be managed along with care for young children, aging parents, and the desire for new challenges. A corporate legal environment can offer advantages for these lawyers over that of a law firm, including opportunities to stretch one's legal and managerial skills, increased control over work/life balance issues, and respite from rainmaking responsibilities.
It is perhaps not surprising then that an increasing number of minority attorneys are choosing the in-house route. In 1998, the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC, formerly the American Corporate Counsel Association) released its findings in the report, "In-House Corporate Attorneys: Profile of the Profession," which revealed that the proportion of minority in-house counsel was up to nine percent from four percent in 1993.1 By 2000, this percentage had grown to 10 percent,2 and in 2001, ACC's most recent survey reported an increase to 12.5 percent.3
Unfortunately, for minority attorneys, getting to the top in a law department can be just as difficult as obtaining partnership in a law firm. Minority attorneys represent approximately four percent of the partners in the nation's major law firms,4 and 4.3 percent of Fortune 1000 general counsel.5 But while these numbers are sobering, there are minority attorneys who have beaten the odds, and they are willing to share their journeys and advice with others on lower rungs of the ladder. Profiled are seven outstanding minority attorneys working at the senior management ranks of their respective companies. Their hard work and perseverance have placed them at the top of their game, and the stories of how they got there are both instructive and inspirational.
Tara L. Harper
In 2000, Tara L. Harper joined Goldman, Sachs & Co. as vice president and assistant general counsel. Currently, she is in the intellectual property and technology group in the legal department. Tara is part of the legal staff management team and serves as the technology lawyer for the Investment Management Division and the tax group and provides contractual advice to the Goldman Sachs Foundation.
After law school, Harper clerked for the Honorable Gary L. Lancaster in the Western District of Pennsylvania. From Lancaster, she gained simple but invaluable advice: "He said to me, 'Law is a demanding profession. If you are not willing to work hard, be precise, re-read and re-think what you do, then you probably need to find another profession,'" says Harper.
Harper stuck with it. After her clerkship, she was courted by IBM, which launched her career as a technology lawyer. Her time at American Express, Standard & Poor's, and Goldman Sachs has helped Harper to focus on her practice of intellectual property and technology agreements, copyright issues, and consulting and outsourcing agreements. She also became adept at managing other attorneys and legal staff.
Harper, who mentors three law students through the Practicing Lawyers for Law Students program (PALS),6 notes that her success is owed partially to a vast network of both formal and informal mentors she actively cultivates. "When attorneys say, 'Stay in touch,' I take them up on that. I sent my senior mentors notes when I passed the bar, and also when I changed jobs and gained promotions," she says. "Although I may not speak with them frequently, I still reach out to them when I have ideas or need guidance about my career," she explains.
Not long ago, Harper and a college friend hosted an informal dinner for minority in-house women attorneys that they knew. "We started off with 12 minority women, and the dinner was a success, so we did it again. The second time 20 came, at the third we hosted 27," says Harper. "At the last one, 70 women attended, including two general counsel of large organizations. We created a directory of women we all knew, and currently have over 160 women in it by the end." The informal circle of minority in-house women — gathered through word-of-mouth invitations — illustrates an innovative way that women-of-color in the profession, from one to 20 years of experience, support each other.
Zenola Harper joined Bristol-Myers Squibb as a senior litigation counsel with a broad portfolio, including product liability litigation, insurance, and commercial litigation. Harper's in-house career began at Unisys Corporation. There, she handled product liability, product performance, and commercial and patent litigation. Patent litigation was not an area of the law that Harper had previously been exposed to, but she liked being challenged and trying new areas of the law.
"I was willing to learn a completely different area of the law as I went along, and earned a reputation as a go-to person in the company," says Harper. This attitude was instrumental in her advancement in-house.
She later moved to United Technologies' Otis Elevator Company, where she handled product liability, commercial litigation, and mergers and acquisitions, and helped develop a successful program that resulted in the decrease and prevention of litigation for the company.
Harper was not always focused on litigation. She thought that she wanted to be a teacher until she observed youth in her hometown being treated unfairly by law enforcement. "When I was very young, I observed police unjustly target a group of young boys for a crime," explains Harper. "I decided someone needed to stand up for them and defend them against these kinds of situations. I read everything I could about becoming a lawyer and a juvenile defender. I was 11 years old when I decided that I was going to be a lawyer."
Harper's interest in juvenile law took her to Tanzania, East Africa, as a Fulbright Fellow, where she studied the country's legal system as it relates to juvenile offenders. "I quickly realized that I couldn't judge their system based on the value system I had learned in the U.S. Instead, I needed to understand what it was within Tanzanian culture that had enabled the system to develop this way," says Harper. The experience enhanced Harper's ability as a litigator. "Now, when presented with a problem, I try to understand why something occurred, why someone thinks the way that they do, and why they did what they did," says Harper.
Harper advises minority attorneys to take on responsibilities that will help build their confidence in their own legal skills. One such area is pro bono cases. "When I worked in a law firm, I took on pro bono work and dealt with real world experiences for clients who might otherwise have had limited access to legal resources. I had a lot of passion for their personal situations and a strong desire to succeed for them. These pro bono experiences were an important aspect of my development as a successful litigator," concludes Harper.
Harold W. Jordan, II
Harold W. Jordan, II is the assistant general counsel of INVESCO Institutional (N.A.), Inc., where he provides securities, general corporate, regulatory counsel, and litigation management oversight.
Jordan moved in-house after working as a litigation associate at two firms. "Firm life is intellectually challenging and life-consuming," says Jordan. "One Sunday morning, when I'd already scheduled to spend nine hours in the office after church, I was leaving home on my way to church, when a partner phoned me and said, 'I need you to come in. Now.'" Jordan realized then that he wanted more control over his life than firm-life offered.
He later accepted an in-house position as one of two attorneys at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Ga. "I became a corporate lawyer by necessity. I had been brought in to cut costs, and wound up taking on more corporate work to justify my salary," Jordan explains. Additionally for Grady and two other healthcare organizations based in Atlanta, he did physician practice acquisitions, contract negotiations, and later drafted various corporate documents — all skills that have come into play in his current position.
Over the course of his career, Jordan has benefited greatly from two mentoring relationships he gained through a summer internship in Atlanta. "Both were senior partners of color who showed me the ropes of firm life, and took a genuine interest in me," he says. "They helped me study for the bar, transition to the firm I initially joined in D.C., and years later opened talks about me joining their firm," says Jordan.
Jordan encourages minority attorneys to look for mentors. "Search Martindale-Hubbell for those with common experiences — cultural, educational, or geographical — and use this commonality to open talks with someone you wish to know better," he advises. "There is a common misconception that a senior partner who doesn't walk the halls looking to cultivate mentoring relationships isn't interested in the development of young attorneys," says Jordan. "But their primary focus is, as it should be, on generating billable hours and cultivating business relationships. It's incumbent on the younger lawyers to initiate these talks. My experience is, people are more than happy to meet you halfway once you've initiated contact," he concludes.
Jeffrey Maldonado, Verizon's vice president, associate general counsel – Retail Markets, manages a department of 10 attorneys that provides advice on regulatory, transactional, and marketing issues to Verizon's domestic wireline retail lines of business.
Maldonado's entrance in-house occurred by a strange quirk of fate. "There was a young man working in the mailroom at my old law firm who was in school with my younger brother," says Maldonado. "I took him to lunch, and the next day a man knocked on my door and thanked me for taking his son to lunch. He turned out to be the general counsel of GTE California."
Maldonado eventually joined GTE California in 1987 as a litigation staff attorney. By 1990, he'd been promoted to associate general counsel – Hawaii Region, providing advice to the region president and his direct reports on local and international legal and regulatory matters. He moved to Texas in 1998 and assumed the role of assistant general counsel – Texas/Midwest. In 1999, he earned another promotion to assistant general counsel, Region Field Operations – West Coast and Hawaii, before accepting his most recent position with Verizon in 2000 with the merger of GTE and Bell Atlantic. "I've been flexible about accepting positions in different parts of the country and being open to new experiences within the business," says Maldonado of his success. "Part of being an effective lawyer, I believe, is getting to know different areas of the business and not pigeon-holing yourself."
Maldonado's involvement with Verizon's Hispanic Support Organization and the Hispanic Leadership Council, as well as his mentoring relationships, has played a part in this growth. "There are seven people in my mentoring circle, most of whom are Hispanic, and all drawn from various parts of the business," says Maldonado. "I've probably benefited from their insights as much as they've benefited from mine," he asserts.
Maldonado has learned that the most effective lawyers are great listeners and fact-gatherers, and not quick to pre-judge a situation. "A client doesn't just want a lawyer who will lay down the rules and keep him out of trouble, but someone who can come up with creative solutions to tough legal problems and who will be an effective partner in the business," says Maldonado. To this end, he advises minority attorneys to first sit and listen to what a client wants to accomplish, really understand what the business objectives are, and then work toward solutions that facilitate those objectives.
Darren Sharpe is an assistant general counsel at Freddie Mac, where he has served as a securities attorney for 14 years. Sharpe began his legal career as a litigation associate at Sidley Austin Brown & Wood in Washington D.C., but did transactional work for one of his clients and found it suited him better. "Litigation is often quite adversarial," Sharpe notes. "As a transactional attorney, you collaborate with a varied set of individuals, including your own company's business people and external accountants and investment bankers, all working together to complete a transaction. I have always found the collaborative process that is so central to transactional work to be quite rewarding."
Sharpe has enjoyed the opportunity Freddie Mac has provided during his career to develop substantive expertise in securities law. He has handled a wide variety of transactions and other types of legal matters during his career at Freddie Mac, including debt issuances, derivative transactions, and offerings of mortgage-related, equity, and global securities. "Several times during my career at Freddie Mac, I've been presented with opportunities in areas that I wasn't sure would be valuable to my career development," he says. "More often than not, these opportunities have turned out to be diamonds in the rough, and I have been able to gain expertise in a novel substantive area of law while simultaneously exhibiting my abilities as a team player," says Sharpe.
Sharpe appreciates the value Freddie Mac places on its leaders and those individuals who exhibit leadership behaviors. "Freddie Mac's leaders have the ability to relate to and motivate the people they work with, are proactive, inspire loyalty, and get results," he says.
Sharpe tries to model these attributes of leadership and believes if you think there is a problem that should be addressed, it is better to offer a solution than to complain or become upset about the status quo. "For example, for some time I had strongly felt that Freddie Mac could do more to promote diversity in the Legal Division. Rather than complain, I decided to be proactive by serving on the first Organizational Effectiveness and Diversity Council that the Legal Division formed to address these issues. During the time I served on the Council, I learned a lot about myself and my colleagues in the Legal Division, particularly how the concept of diversity means different things to different individuals," he continued. Sharpe strongly encourages other attorneys to pursue opportunities to make similar contributions at their law firm or in-house legal department.
In the 20 years that Sharpe has been practicing law, he's learned that there is a value to being flexible. "There are times in your career where, because you are a minority, you may be viewed with suspicion or apprehension, but you can't focus on things you can't control," says Sharpe. "Instead, focus on doing the best job you can do and on being thorough and responsive to the needs of your business clients. Once your colleagues in Legal and your colleagues in other business areas see the results you bring to the table, they'll focus on your results, and the minority versus non-minority matter is not an issue," says Sharpe.
Kim Rivera-Sanchez joined Rockwell Automation Inc. five years ago as an assistant general counsel, and in 2003 was promoted to associate general counsel. She is chief divisional counsel of the company's largest business division, the $1.4 billion Automation Control & Information Group (ACIG). She oversees the legal matters of the division and is a member of the executive management team. In addition, she oversees product liability litigation company-wide.
Rivera-Sanchez began her career at the law firm of Jones Day, where she served as national counsel to a number of Fortune 500 companies, simultaneously managing mass tort litigation, commercial disputes, and class action matters. Additionally, Rivera-Sanchez was involved in recruiting, training, and evaluating other attorneys.
When she decided to move in-house, Rivera-Sanchez drew from the broad-based skill sets and business understanding developed at Jones Day. "In private practice, you're required to have a narrower, substantive area you practice in and I wanted to branch out," she explains.
The transition has helped Rivera-Sanchez grow as a professional, increasing her responsibilities and broadening both her technical and managerial skills. She advises, "Stretch whenever possible. Take on jobs and roles that are outside of your comfort zone. If you're too comfortable, then you aren't growing and that's when you know it's time to take on a new challenge."
In addition to her professional responsibilities, Rivera- Sanchez is involved in the Association of Corporate Counsel, the Hispanic National Bar Association, and sits on boards for community and non-profit organizations.
She attended Harvard Law School and says that attending a top-tier school opened many doors for her. "I wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to do, and going to an Ivy League school and working at a tier one law firm gave me options. Although these are certainly not prerequisites to a successful and fulfilling career in the law, attending the best possible law school and working at places with outstanding training will help advance any legal career," she says.
Today, Rivera-Sanchez works toward long-term goals that she has set for herself. "One day, I hope to be the general counsel of a Fortune 500 company, and perhaps expand outside of law and run one," she concluded.
Ivan K. Fong
When subjects were initially identified for this article, Ivan Fong was chief privacy leader and senior counsel for information technology at General Electric Co. (GE). By the time of the interview, Fong had been promoted to senior vice president and general counsel of GE Vendor Financial Services, a unit of GE Commercial Finance.
The sheer breadth of Fong's experience has made him an invaluable lawyer. As a young attorney, he clerked for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor of the U.S. Supreme Court and former Chief Judge Abner J. Mikva of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. He later became a partner at Covington & Burling — specializing in intellectual property litigation, white-collar criminal law, and complex civil litigation — and an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University Law Center.
Because of his interest in public service, and with the encouragement of a mentor, he accepted a position as deputy associate attorney general with the U.S. Department of Justice, where he helped oversee the federal government's most significant civil litigation and led the development of e-commerce, privacy, and cybercrime policy. Then, "When the general counsel of GE learned I was developing e-commerce policy for the Administration, he offered me an opportunity to be a part of one of the world's most interesting businesses and to work with an extremely talented legal team," says Fong, who accepted the newly created position of GE's chief e-commerce counsel.
In-house, he reported directly to the then-general counsel, Benjamin W. Heineman, Jr., serving as a specialist on all things internet and IT-related. Later, Fong was promoted to chief privacy leader, and earlier this year, he became chief legal counsel to one of GE's fastest growing businesses.
Fong's advice to minority attorneys is to identify outstanding lawyers whom you admire and respect, and from whom you can learn. "There were two partners at Covington – one practiced environmental law and the other white-collar criminal law – and I was immediately drawn to working with them," says Fong, "and that's how I initially started in those practice areas." Fong suggests that having a mentor should not be a one-way relationship. "Make their lives easier. Do top-notch work for them. If they are outside your organization, volunteer to work on bar or other professional projects in which they are active. Find a way to distinguish yourself," says Fong. "Generally, once you've made their life easier, they are more than willing to bring you to the table and share with you what they know," he concludes.
Alea Jasmin Mitchell worked for MCCA® as a summer intern upon her graduation from Wesleyan. She is now a freelance writer based in New York City.
- See "In-House Corporate Attorneys: A Profile of the Profession" by the Association of Corporate Counsel, at http://www.acca.com/news/press/survey2.html.
- See "The Collaboration" by Lawyers for One America, at www.lfoa.org/barnone/barnone_collaboration.html.
- See "Census of U.S. In-House Counsel by Association of Corporate Counsel (formerly ACCA), Dec. 2001, at www.acca.com/Surveys/census01.
- See "Women and Attorneys of Color Continue to Make Small Gains at Large Law Firms" by NALP, at http://www.nalp.org/press/minrwom03.htm.
- See the 2004 "MCCA Fortune 1000 Survey of General Counsel" by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association.
- PALS is a program designed to assist minorities entering the legal profession. PALS offers a mentoring program and career guidance services to minority law students attending New York metropolitan area law schools. Programs are offered free of charge to law students.
In addition to writing about legal issues, Washington D.C.-based Sean Groom writes about the outdoors and adventure travel.
From the May/June 2004 issue of Diversity & The Bar®